If you think you've been doing comedy for a long time, then what does that make Robert Klein, who filmed HBO's first comedy special 35 years ago and returns to the Home Box Office this Saturday with his ninth, dubbed "Unfair and Unbalanced." Care to guess his politics?
Well, you don't have to guess. Though he'd rather see John McCain get the 3 a.m. phone calls, Klein takes on Sarah Palin, Nancy Grace and Greta Van Susteren, reminds us that he was a horrible defense lawyer on Law & Order: SVU, had a love scene with Joan Rivers, gives props to Jonathan Winters, sings about medical marijuana and marriage, and closes, as is his wont, with a tribute to his long-running gag, "I can't stop my leg." Here's the buzz:
In our chat earlier this week, Klein talked about how comedy has changed and how it hasn't since his first HBO special in 1975. And he's certainly not on Twitter: "I'm a bit of a geezer when it comes to this shit. I'm not a Twitter. I've known a few twits. I don't know if they Twittered. I've known a few twats. I don't know if they Twattered."
Most stand-ups who use music either are musical comedians or save it 'til the end. Not you, sir, putting your politics into song. Who do you think you are, Mark Russell? "Mark Russell? He's amusing. But he plays the piano and he can't sing. The only guy who could pull that off was Tom Lehrer. My thing is that music, comedy in music, the comedy in music must be impeccable. When I did 'Child of the '50s' on my '73 album. I did all five voices of a doo-wop group." On this special, filmed in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he's backed by the 47-piece Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra.
How is the comedy scene different now from you started? "I always think of show business as one of the great meritocracies. It's such a great myth of who you fuck, or who you're uncle is. But it doesn't matter who you are. Dane Cook is the only one who I've seen who isn't an honest broker. I've seen a number of comics, Def Comedy Jam, where there's some vulgar material, but there's some funny stuff. Cook, he may be a hunk for the movies, but he engineered this stuff online. I don't go and see who's the latest stand-up who's going through the roof. Chris Rock is clever, and he has some wonderful ideas...but he disappointed me when he pandered at the Apollo."
You did have nice words to say about Jonathan Winters in your special, though. "When I saw these young twits, at Comedy Central, reading off the comedians of the 20th Century, Jonathan Winters is not in the top 10, not to mention they had me at 22. 22! Jonathan Winters and Lenny Bruce, they were the two great influences...I saw the Borscht Belt when I was a bus boy and a lifeguard, and these guys had a mastery of the room. I still think it's a high calling, making people laugh."
Eight finalists have made it to tonight to compete for nice prize money and who knows what other rewards at the inaugural Great American Comedy Festival. And they are...
Erin Jackson, Shane Mauss, Deacon Gray, Marianne Sierk, Chris Coccia, Drake Witham, Jim McDonald and Chuck Bartell. Really a cross-section of America, come to think of it. How about that. They'll tell jokes again tonight in Norfolk, Neb., at the 1,234-seat Johnny Carson Theater, although this time, their judges will be Robert Klein, Dick Cavett and Wende Curtis (owner of Comedy Works in Denver).
Some other info, courtesy of Mr. Eddie Brill, coordinator of the fest:
The winner gets $5,000, but second and third place aren't exactly shabby, taking home $3,000 and $2,000, respectively. Also, Brill notes: "The Saturday night gala will be hosted by Robert Klein. Also performing that night is Nick Griffin, Jeff Caldwell, myself, The Brave New Workshop, and the three top money winners from the comedy finals. Jeff Caldwell is hosting the preliminaries. I am hosting the finals of the comedy competition. Nick Griffin will be closing the competition shows while the judges votes are tabulated." Cavett, who will receive a Legend Award, will take Qs & give As. Other events include a weeklong comedy camp for kids, workshops and a Christian comedy show.
Related: Did you know Dick Cavett blogs for the New York Times?
The inaugural Great American Comedy Festival got under way last night with an amateur stand-up contest in Norfolk, Neb., hometown to the late Johnny Carson. Eddie Brill, David Letterman's comedy guy, is coordinating the effort, and we all know how Letterman felt about his late-night TV mentor. Robert Klein is set to perform Saturday night along with Brill and the winner of the following...
There's also a competition featuring 24 comics from around the country, with $5,000 going to the winner. Participating: Jesse Joyce, Vince Maranto, Micah Sherman, Matt Braunger, Roy Wood Jr., Erin Jackson, Joe DeRosa, Chuck Bartell, Chris Coccia, Deacon Gray, Robert Mac, Jamie Lissow, David Powell, Paul Varghese, Drake Witham, Myq Kaplan, Joe Klocek, Shane Mauss, Tapan Trivedi, Jim McDonald, Dan Boulger, Marianne Sierk, James Smith and Darryl Lenox. They'll be split into four groups, with two of each six advancing to the finals, all needing to deliver TV-friendly sets. Each night also features a late show hosted by David Reinitz.
Robert Klein had a funny recollection of his first professional performing gig in Boston four decades ago. He performs in Newton Saturday and Sunday.
"I'm still a well-kept secret, performing in person," Klein said. "I mean, I'm not a big tour guy. I do a lot of work as a stand-up comedian…but now I do much more corporate stuff." Tell me something we don't know. "I took a lot of time off this summer. A little time visiting Richard Belzer in France…pretty much taking it easy." His memoirs, covering his early years from 9 to 25, are now in paperback. "I got to take part in the sexual revolution, which was a lot more fun than either the French or the Bolshevik revolutions. No one was shooting at you. And number two, no AIDS."
As for his comedy writing, Klein said: "98 percent of it comes from improvisation. Initally, ideas come out of my head onstage. I record them to tape. I listen to them afterward and think about them, make suggestions." He said with a guy like George Carlin, all of the stage hands know exactly what to expect from one show to another. "I have this Second City bug in me, '65, '66, that's where my career started. I can't do the same show twice, ever. There's a lot of set pieces, I wouldn't change a punchline…but there's certain things you can do."
Don't bother asking him what he thinks about the current state of stand-up. "I'm not the biggest judge of that. I love show business. God bless it. Forty-one years. I wouldn't know what else to do…but when the meter is off, it's nice to get away from it. I'm not rushing out to see the latest comedian." He did, however, once host a cable comedy show called "New Joke City" that featured up-and-comers. "I did present something like several dozen comedians. I felt a lot of them were funny."
"I think America has dumbed down a lot since I started. A part of it is they don't read anymore. I became an author just when people stopped reading. People have the attention spans of, you know, tick mice at this point. Computers are fantastic things. I wrote a book on one, but I can't fathom anything else about them. I'm afraid that young people to come won't know the heft of a book, holding one, the process of reading and finding proper light…Everything has to be in your face. Lacking subtletly. I did a special I was part of…for Rodney Dangerfield. The cutting was so distracting to me, but they know their audience, Comedy Central."
Lewis Black has said that scandals and outrages are happening so frequently it's hard for him as a comedian to keep up. Klein said: "I don't chase too much what's happening today, unless I'm on Bill Maher. That will get so old so quickly by the time HBO comes out. And the box set (which will include all of his HBO specials, dating back to 1975, would make the material even more outdated)."
What about that tape recording he listens to of his new material, does Klein learn much? "The audience has told me already." So if a joke doesn't work, "you don't just give up, though. You might be able to do it better the next time." About comedians and politics, Klein said that Lewis Black was the best thing about Man of the Year. "I confess that (The Daily Show), which I don't see that often, is very good. Bill Maher is getting touted now. It's good that people can speak their minds. Americans around the age of their 20s and 30s, it's said they get their political information from these shows. That's bad. Because it's very funny, but it's all about how it's bad, it's all bulls–t, so why vote?" But Klein said humor is the best way to get your points across, and maintain that within humor, political cartoons are even better. Those images get ingrained in your mind, Klein said, whether it's Bush being dumb or Gore being boring. "But nobody would take Clinton for a fool. He was a Rhodes Scholar, at least from the waist up. From the waist down, he's a high school equivalency. But nobody would call him a fool."